Poetry Reading, Percy Bryce Shelley, Mutability

27 Dec

Let’s start out with a simple confession:  I used to loathe the Romantic poets with every fiber of my being.  I took a class in the romantics and I quickly got sick of the stuff.  Now, years later, I realize that I might have suffered too much of a good thing.  The romantics are all about Feeling with a capital F, so unlike the generations before them who were much more formal, and the generation after them (the Victorians) who were much more part of an industry, the romantics tend to drench each poem in such emotion that sometimes they collapse under it.  The thing that saves the romantics from becoming too much is that the emotions they describe are never simple emotions, but whole landscapes that have multiple shades of meaning.

So let’s take Mutability, which means, a state of constant changing (though it’s interesting to note that the word mutation is closely related).  Shelley says that we “are as clouds that veil the midnight moon.”  So imagine a full moon at midnight (and the romantics were exactly the sort who would like to be lying around moon-gazing and thinking about what things mean to them) and how it’s like this tiny spotlight in this great sky, and while the rest of the sky is mostly black, the moon shows a whole set of clouds, “how restlessly they seed, and gleam, and quiver,/Streaking the darkness radiantly!”  Those clouds surrounding that little moon never stay still, never reconfigure into the same shapes, but change over and over again.  However, sooner or later either the moon sets, or full cloud cover comes in and “night comes round, and they are lost for ever.”  Night here is just darkness, and Shelly is not saying that clouds or the moon are lost forever, but our perception of them is, even if we get another night with the same conditions, something will be different.

The next stanza compares us to “forgotten lyres” (partially because if there’s something a romantic was doing while not watching the moon, he was thinking about outmoded Roman instruments),  these stringed instruments are not finely tuned, so plucking a string can “give various response…to whose frail frame no second motion brings/One mood or modulation like the last.”  So, we are like an aging instrument that cannot make the same performance twice.  Notice in both these metaphors death is nearby, with the moon and the darkness (darkness is almost a universal symbol for death), as well as the decrepit instrument that will sooner or later move to beyond repair.

And now we move from metaphor to experience.  “We rest. –A dream has power to poison sleep;/We rise.–One wandering thought pollutes the day.”  A nice two line punch that fits with the first two stanzas very neatly–The moon and night, the lyre and day, how nicely Shelley builds this whole little system, for couldn’t his image of the moon be what poisoned his sleep?  And couldn’t the lyre be the thought (plucked as if from a string) that polluted his day?  That’s the thing with the romantics, these statements seem self-evident, but the amount of consciousness needed to see these traits, as well as verbalize them is astounding.  Everything is different; everything is connected.  He finishes the stanza with the reactions we can have to these facts we can “feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep;/Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away.”  So we basically can feel, think, or watch, or show a physical reaction (weeping/laughter) and finally sink into despair, or push despair away.  These really are the basic human reactions to change.    So I bet you think Shelley has a preferred reaction/way to address change?

“It is the same!” Ha ha, fooled you!  Nope, to Shelley it doesn’t matter a bit how anybody reacts to all these changes.  So Shelley’s theory as he writes it would go something like this:  1.  Everything is always changing.  2.  Everything is connected.  3.  We react to everything, which makes us part of everything 4.  Which makes everything the same (in its constant changing).

The most puzzling lines here are Shelley’s explanation “For, be it joy or sorrow,/the path of its departure still is free.”  In other words whether we are happy or sorrowful, these feelings will ultimately end–they are brief energies that only exist for a time.  “Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;/Nought may endure but Mutability.”    Only change is constant, everything else is temporary.

So basically this is a meditation on change, and this is what I did not see in the romantics before, how bread and butter they can be.  This poem can be applied to anyone, anywhere, at any time.  Everything changes, whatever is right now won’t be one day.  All there is, is change.

Shelley has a bunch of works focused on how nothing lasts, but unlike the book of Lamentations which finds this to be a woeful state of affairs, Shelley rejoices in it, instead of nothing lasts, so why bother, Shelley is more like, nothing lasts, so enjoy yourself!  To Shelley you are no more in control of your destiny than a leaf in a stream, but Shelley finds that as a source of liberation rather than despair.    After all, isn’t the idea that we are all free to craft our destinies a little bit of a trap?  Does everyone deserve where they end up?  Also there’s a certain comfort that if you just wait long enough the emotional scenery will change–submitting to mutability leaves you a whole lot less distracted to our job of noticing and reacting to things.

Now while I really like the thoughts of this poem, I do have a few misgivings, because there’s a huge difference between embracing change and being fickle, and the romantics can be accused of doing both.  Also, while self-determinism can make people have a certain amount of judgement on the world, mutability does tend to lend itself to people being very passive, and not taking responsibility for their own feelings (though in Shelley’s defense, he never advocates for that.)    While embracing change is a great thing, it shouldn’t take away from the situations where we do have the power to shape things, even if those situations are few and far between.

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